Thursday, July 25, 2013

Clarence Brown - Director and Automotive Engineer

Clarence Brown, respected movie director during Hollywood’s glamour’s heyday, had a different career as a very young man.  How much influence the manufacturing city of Chicopee, Massachusetts, had upon his future choice of career in during the short time he lived here is unknown and probably negligible, but it is intriguing to observe how the fledging movie industry and the fledgling auto industry ran a parallel, and interdependent, course. 
Mr. Brown, before he ever knew what movies were, was employed by the Stevens-Duryea auto manufacturer in Chicopee.
Brown was born east of Chicopee in the town of Clinton, Massachusetts, in 1890.  The turn of the 20th century fast approaching, a menagerie of new innovations in science and art, and especially in new inventions, burst forth in such a stream of imagination that many qualities of the next century would find their prelude in this very decade. To narrow it down a little, both automobiles and moving pictures had their impetus in this frenetic decade called the Gay Nineties.
Both cars and movies have come to mean a great deal to us, and certainly to Clarence Brown.
While Brown was a small child, Frank and Charles Duryea were tinkering with their experimental gasoline-powered horseless carriage, the prototype for which was supposedly designed in their boardinghouse on Front Street in Chicopee. It didn’t take long for the auto industry to be off and running. The Overman Wheel Company in the section of town called Chicopee Falls was one of the country’s many new automobile factories; they were producing cars as early as 1900.
The men who designed and produced these marvelous machines were considered to be wizards of technology, dreamers, and rugged individualists. Clarence Brown may have fit into this mold, for surely he was a unique young man. Intelligent and gifted, he was allowed special permission to attend the University of Tennessee when he was only 15 years old.
While he studied engineering there, the threads of his future destiny were already forming for him thousands of miles away. In 1907, while Brown was away at college, the Duryea firm back in Chicopee contracted with the J. Stevens Arms plant in Chicopee Falls to produce their cars.
Stevens Arms company, postcard, Image Museum website, public domain
The following year the first movie theater in Chicopee opened. It was called the Gem, and it was located around the corner from the Stevens plant on Main Street. Any connection between these two newborn industries was unapparent at the time, and would even be to Brown at first.
His father, Larkin Brown, had run a cotton mill in Massachusetts, but when Clarence was a boy, the family moved south where his father continued in cotton textile manufacturing.  His father hoped that Clarence would go into the family business, but after graduating with two degrees at only 19 years old, the remarkable young man decided to follow his passion at the time—which was the new automobile craze.
He first went to Illinois to work at an automobile plant there, but soon came to Chicopee and the Duryea company around 1910.
Industry in the manufacturing town of Chicopee was diversified and booming at this time. Any number of products were produced here then, from foodstuffs to bicycles to clothing. Though we may think of the opportunities presented to the thousands of skilled and unskilled laborers who came here for work as represented by the huge influx of immigrants from Europe and Canada, Chicopee also became the proving ground for any number of professionals and “bright young men” who began their careers here.  One of them was Clarence Brown.
The Stevens-Duryea 1905 model
While Brown was working at the Stevens-Duryea auto plant, two more moving picture theaters opened up in the city. It would be tantalizing to think that Brown’s future fame as a director was born in a dark theater in Chicopee, but we’ll never know. Surely any interest he might have discovered in the flickers was put to the back of his mind, for about 1912 he left Chicopee. 
1912 advertisement
Brown is quoted in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By…, “I became the traveling expert mechanic for Stevens-Duryea.  One of my calls was to a dealer in Birmingham, Alabama, who took a liking to me, and he set me up in a subsidiary company, called the Brown Motor Car Company. I had the agency for the Alco truck, the Stevens-Duryea, and the Hudson.  It was around this time—1913, 1914—that I became interested in the picture business.”
His favorite flickers at the time were produced by the Peerless Company, and Brown left Alabama and his business, and became an assistant to Maurice Tourneur, one of the directors for Peerless, whom he always credited with being his greatest teacher and directing mentor.
Years later Clarence Brown’s own films played in the new Chicopee theaters: the Rivoli, the Wernick, the Willow, and the Victoria—“second-run” neighborhood theaters which Brown never heard of because they were built after he left Chicopee.
Brown directed Greta Garbo in Anna Christie and Anna Karenina and five of her other films. His film A Free Soul made a star of Clark Gable, and his National Velvet introduced us to Elizabeth Taylor.  He gave us The Yearling, The White Cliffs of Dover, and Plymouth Adventure before retiring in 1953. He was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award five times.
Brown died in 1987 at 97 years old. Talent and ambition in one field brought him to Chicopee, but he made his mark in that other new industry in Hollywood.  And where would “the flickers” be without car chases?

A previous version of this article appeared in In Chicopee (a publication of the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, Holyoke, Mass.) 1992.

Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By… (University of California Press, 1976), pp.138-140.
Siegel, Scott and Barbara Siegel.  The Encyclopedia of Hollywood (NY: Facts on File, 1990) pp. 62-63.
Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican. September 19, 1937, p. 3E.
Thomas, Nicholas. Ed. International Directory of Films and Filmmakers: Directors, Vol. 7 (2nd ed. (Chicago and London: St. James Press, 1991), pp. 103-105.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Angel's Flight Railway in the Movies

One scene in our look at "The Unfaithful" (1947) last week here--really delighted me and I thought I'd save that for this week.  It's this view of a funicular railway in downtown Los Angeles.   We see Marta Mitrovich, who plays the widow of Ann Sheridan's attacker, traveling home to her working-class neighborhood on this railway car, when she reads the news of her husband's death in the newspaper.

I don't suppose there's any reason to have this scene on this funicular, it has nothing to do with the plot, but it makes for a nice foray into Los Angeles sights, and "The Unfaithful" is full of them.  I remembered seeing this same funicular in "The Turning Point" (1952) -- a movie we'll have to discuss sometime or other.
In that movie, we see William Holden and Alexis Smith riding the steep railway as they ferret out a mystery. 
The funicular is called Angel's Flight Railway, and was built in the Bunker Hill area of downtown L.A. in 1901.  I understand it has been filmed in a handful of movies,
  Another shot from "The Turning Point"
The original Angel's Flight was dismantled in 1969 when the area underwent an extensive urban renewal project, and a lot of the, now rundown, but historically significant buildings in the neighborhood were demolished.
Here in "The Turning Point" the camera pans out the window and we can see an example of what the neighborhood looked like before it was demolished.
The funicular is only about two blocks long.  It was built at a time when the Bunker Hill area was fashionable.  It continued to be used as daily transportation by working-class people when the neighborhood demographics changed, and finally, torn down when the promise of the future came, as it did to so many cities, in the form of really ugly 1970s steel-and-concrete urban renewal projects.
Funny, though, that our wish to be modern fights our wish to be nostalgic.  Giving in, perhaps, to this secondary urge, as well as the desire to turn any attribute into a tourist attraction, the Angel's Flight was re-created a little bit south of where the original stood. 
You can read more about the controversial history of the new Angel's Flight Railway here, with some photos.
Another shot from "The Unfaithful"

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Unfaithful - 1947

The Unfaithful (1947) is a superior movie to The Letter (1940). 
I just wanted to get your attention.  I’ve been away from this blog for a long time.  I’m still here.
But seriously, I really do prefer The Unfaithful to the much more well-known and deservedly lauded The Letter.  Pour yourself a cuppa and I’ll tell you why.  You don’t mind spoilers, do you?  I didn’t think so.
Both films are based on the story and subsequent stage play by W. Somerset Maugham, (went through a handful of other film versions as well) but The Unfaithful is a re-working of the story to fit into a different locale: post-war Los Angeles.  The original story, you’ll remember, is set in a Malaya rubber plantation.  The Letter stars Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall in the tale of an unfaithful wife, who murders her married lover, and then must hide the truth from her husband and the police.  The device that seals her fate and proves her guilt is a letter written to her lover.  Gale Sondergaard, who strikes fear into the hearts of everybody, not just in this movie—she probably struck fear into the hearts of people just walking down Wilshire Boulevard—is the dead man’s wife who holds the whip hand over Bette Davis.

Directed by William Wyler, The Letter is lush and mysterious, steamy and provocative, beginning with Miss Davis unblinkingly gunning down her lover.  We are plunked down at the edge of the jungle, under a tropical moon, where civilization, i.e. white European society, is represented in a dance at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.  It is about guilt and revenge and racial stereotypes.  The famous line uttered by Bette Davis: “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” is still a shocker, an electric moment. 
But for me, the film is a marshmallow: all air, sticky, and without nourishment.  Even the impressive Miss Sondergaard reminds me of The Dragon Lady in the old Terry and the Pirates comic strip, and so the “mysterious orient” clich├ęs that abound in this movie strike me as somewhat cartoonish.  I prefer The Unfaithful for several reasons.  Here we go:
Ann Sheridan is in the Bette Davis role, but unlike Davis—who we know is guilty from the very first moment in the film—Ann Sheridan’s guilt, her sin of being unfaithful, is not apparent until far into the movie.  We start with a happy Miss Sheridan speaking on the phone with her husband who is away on a business trip.  We see she is in love, and eagerly awaiting his return the next day.  We do not suspect her of an adulterous affair.  What we do learn about her comes through twists and turns, and by the end of the film, we see we do not know her at all.  In comparison, Bette Davis comes off as transparent, and I find her brittle rigidity, though compelling psychologically, still two-dimensional, even if we are shocked by her declaration at the end of the film.
Miss Sheridan attends a party thrown by her husband’s cousin, Eve Arden.  Any movie with Eve Arden is always better than a movie without Eve Arden.  Our Eve has a good role here.  We first meet her as a new divorcee who throws herself a Happy Divorce Party.  All her friends are there, and one who is not her friend: her ex-husband shows up, drunk and angry, and vents his bitterness before he is dragged away.  Douglas Kennedy has this small role.  We saw him previously in South of St. Louis (1949).
Miss Arden is raucous, crude, loud, and tasteless in the early part of the film, but she keeps popping up from time to time, and each time we see her, a little more of her hard shell gets peeled away and we discover by the end of the film she’s really a sad and lonely person, and a mensch.  She turns out to be a real pal to Sheridan and her husband, played by Zachary Scott, when they really need her.

Zachary Scott has a more interesting role than the character played by Herbert Marshall in The Letter.  Though I love Herbert Marshall, and though we feel great sympathy for him as the cuckolded husband of Bette Davis, we also can’t help but regard him as a sap.  She’s playing him like a fiddle.  The story, and the director, allows us to see right through Davis, but he has no such advantage and we may wonder how he could be so dense.
Mr. Scott is nobody’s fool, an enterprising builder taking advantage of the post-war boom.  He’s devoted to Sheridan, but when the clues of her guilt wipe the scales from his eyes, he’s determined to dump her and see her rot.  How quickly, and stunningly, love turns to hate.  It’s all passion in one form or another.
Lew Ayres plays their friend and lawyer in a role similar to James Stephenson in The Letter; likewise he is devoted to his friends, plays knight errant to the accused until he discovers her guilt and then fights his own disgust to be able to save her.
Most especially, I love that The Unfaithful is frankly and most purposefully without that fantasyland setting of the tropics.  It is set in a mundane and more familiar time and place.  (Although, I confess, as a New Englander, I find palm trees, even lined up in front of a shopping mall, extremely exotic.) This is a setting we recognize; these are people with whom we are familiar.  It brings this tumultuous story down to earth, with consequences that are real.  We must take their troubles more seriously because they may be our own.
This being a blog about how classic films teach us much about the eras in which they were made, I find The Unfaithful a very useful tool in examining the post-war era.  It’s got all the details.  The narrator tells us as the camera pans from the home of Sheridan and Scott to the palm-tree lined roadway, “The problem with which it deals belongs not to any one town, city or country, but is of our times.”  In this respect, the movie is less like The Letter and more like The Best Years of Our Lives.
The “problem,” it seems, is that so many marriages begun in haste during the romantic and rushed war years are ending in divorce.  Lew Ayres’ clients are mostly women seeking divorces, and he has mixed feelings about that: a desire to be successful, and yet a sense of disgust for his clients.  Eve Arden is his latest client and his latest victory in the courtroom. 
Ann Sheridan is the opposite of Eve Arden: she is a loving wife who waited patiently for her husband to return from war, who still waits patiently for him to return from every business trip.  She waits around a lot.  She and Eve Arden are not close friends; they are too different.  One is a lady and one is…not.
Things turn very bad for Ann and progressively get worse.  She arrives home from Eve Arden’s divorce party, and parks her car in the back of the house.  As she pulls into the drive, we see a man is watching her.  Instantly, the tone of the movie changes.  She walks to the front of the house and we see her silhouetted in the mist.  We watch her walk towards us, knowing the man is hiding, also watching her.  At her door, the man attacks her, pulls her into the darkened house.  We watch through the windows, from the street, a scene of terror and the sounds of struggle, and screams.  We don’t know what’s happened, but we’ve imagined the worst.
It’s the next morning and Zachary Scott lands at the airport, wondering why his wife isn’t there to pick him up.  I like the way the director, Vincent Sherman, takes his time and lets this scene play out.  He’s very good at developing these very tense scenes from ordinary situations.  Your stomach tightens when you see Ann Sheridan walking at night in her own driveway.  Your stomach tightens when you see Zachary Scott get bad news.  We’ve been there.  This is a large part of why I prefer this movie to The Letter—it brings high drama to smallest, quietest elements of what we know as “real” life.
Mr. Scott looks and looks around, finally goes to a phone booth to call home.  Because he’s closed the door of the booth, and because there are constant announcements on the public address system about flights, we barely hear his voice.  We strain to hear him—a nice dramatic touch over not hearing him at all.  It makes us an active participant.  We don’t know what he’s saying—just like we couldn’t see the attack except from yards away and through curtains.  By his expression, we realize somebody on the other end told him shocking news, and he rushes to find his checked luggage and get a cab.
The phone, we learn, was answered the by the police, and we see when he arrives that his home is chaotic with reporters, and police all around.  For the first time, we learn that Ann Sheridan is well and survived the attack, but that her attacker lies dead on the living room floor with an ornamental knife in him that Mr. Scott had brought back from Japan during the war.  That’s about all of the mysterious orient you’ll find in this movie.
When Miss Sheridan is interviewed in her bedroom by the police, with her husband and Lew Ayres at her side, we see that she is traumatized and miserable.  We knew Bette Davis’ distress was just an act, but Sheridan’s horror is real.  The million-dollar question is asked of her “Had you ever seen him before?”  She answers no, and we have no reason to doubt her.  Neither does her husband or her lawyer pal.  The police detective, played by John Hoyt, remains cynical, but that is his job.

The widow of the dead man, played by Marta Mitrovich, accuses Ann of murder. “You killed him!” She is not as scary as Gale Sondergaard, but she’s pretty worked up about it.

By the way, does anyone know who plays the stenographer in this scene?  She has no lines, but she looks familiar.  I love stenographers.  
The detective tells us that the dead man has no criminal record, that he was a sculptor.  His mind, and ours, turns to the question, why did he go to her house?  If robbery wasn’t his motive, we are left with a question of attempted rape, though nobody uses the word.  Ann Sheridan’s expression is our first clue that she’s not being completely honest, she’s withholding some information, but we have to find out the hard way.
Steven Geray plays a smarmy art dealer who contacts Lew Ayres about a bust of a woman, asking him if he wants to buy it.  It was sculpted by the dead sculptor guy.  The face is Ann Sheridan’s.
Ann lied.   The dead scupltor obviously knew her and she knew him, because we are told that this kind of piece would have to be modeled from real life.  He didn’t sculpt it from a photo of her.  I find Ann's scatterbrained, guilt-driven, panic-induced deceit much more understandable and appealing than Bette Davis' psychotic, chilly posturing, but that is not to say that one actress is better than the other in the role; it's just a preference for characterization. 
The art dealer is attempting to blackmail Mr. Ayres’ client, but our noble Lew isn’t having any of it.  He brushes off the smarmy art dealer and goes straight to Ann, who, reluctantly, relents and confesses she did know the dead guy.  It was during the war, and she hired him to do the sculpture, but after a few sittings, he got too personal and creepy and made her feel uncomfortable, so she avoided him and never went back.  He stalked her a few times, but when her husband came home from oversees, it scared the guy off.
Ann tells Lew she didn’t tell him or the police that she knew the guy because, “I was afraid of what people would say.”
Now Lew has to hammer home to her that what people say is not the problem.  The problem is if she knew the guy, a jury might think she let him into the house and murdered him, that it was not self-defense.  She’s frustratingly slow on the uptake about this.
Unless there's more to it that she isn't saying.  

And there is.  

Then Ann goes to the smarmy art dealer herself to pay the blackmail, but the widow doesn’t want her money.  She wants her to go to jail. 
Ann goes back to Lew Ayres in a panic, getting herself in deeper and deeper, and finally Lew understands, as do we, that she had more than a professional relationship with the sculptor.  She had a fling with him.
Lew, lawyer and bachelor, is disgusted.  “You’re no different from all the other cheating, conniving women who parade through my office.”  Now he strips the final layer away:  Did she kill him on purpose to shut him up?
We pause here to watch the how her web of lies has taken on a life of its own.  Smarmy art dealer still wants a cut of the blackmail money he thinks he’ll get, so he contacts Zachary Scott and meets him, like a spy movie, in MacArthur Park (no cake out in the rain here, so just never mind that), one of the many neato Los Angeles scenes we have in this movie.  He takes him to the widow’s run-down apartment and meets Ann’s sculpted likeness as the art dealer hammers him with the old Othello scenario about the treachery of women.  Zachary is crushed.
He goes home to have a showdown with Ann.  She tries to explain her loneliness during the war.  He blasts her, “Millions of women waited, they waited decently, loyally.  They didn’t cheat.”
Mr. Scott wants a divorce, but just as he’s about to storm out, the cops show up at the door to arrest Ann on suspicion of murder.  See, the cops discovered Zachary going to the widow’s apartment with the smarmy art dealer.   They know about the sculpture now.  The jig is up.
Our Lew, despite his profound disappointment in Ann, agrees to represent her at the murder trial, where the prosecuting attorney is our old pal, Jerome Cowan.
The trial sequence builds to a crescendo of self- knowledge—of Zachary about Ann, and of about himself and his failings as a husband.  We learn they knew each other two short weeks before they were married, and he was so eager to pursue his career on his return home, she became an afterthought.  We also learn, somewhat surprisingly, that she was a fashion editor for a magazine before the war, yet we are given the impression she does not have a career now.  She gave up a job like that to stay home and volunteer for the Red Cross?  That is an interesting subplot that is not pursued, however. 
Neither is it fleshed out the possibility that Lew Ayres may feel more than friendship and respect for Ann and could present as a romantic rival, which would have been intriguing, but no triangle happens. 
What we do have is the crime of the century—not the murder, and not just cheating on her husband, but cheating on a vet in a post-war climate that revered them.
Jerome Cowan asks us, “Is this a woman you can believe?”
But Lew Ayres, and the producers remind us, “She is not on trial for infidelity.”  Mr. Ayres, from his own professional perspective as a divorce lawyer counters: “How many personal tragedies occurred far from the battlefield,” and “If there had been no war, she would not be in this court today.”  So it’s the war’s fault.  We see Zachary Scott mulling this over.
The best summation of the story is handled by Eve Arden.  When the jury is out a long time, Zachary Scott goes over his cousin Eve’s house to wait.  The merry divorcee is spending a quiet evening alone, with a book, the radio, and a box of chocolates, still wisecracking, but softer and sympathetic.  Zachary tears up, and cries, and she softly replies, “I’m glad to see you acting like a human being for a change.” 
Though she was never best pals with Ann Sheridan, whom she regarded as too good to be true, she defends her, and Zachary is upset.  “Is it my fault I was sent overseas?”
“You knew you were going when you met her.  Let’s face it, that’s why you married her…what you wanted was a whirl and a memory.  You wanted a beautiful woman waiting for you, and you didn’t want anyone making time with her when you were away, so you hung up a no trespassing sign, like you’d stake a gold claim.  You didn’t marry her; you just took an option on her.”
“She could have said no.”
Eve continues her sane, and somewhat shocking for the times, rebuttal: “When the band was playing?  Listen, I was there.  I saw you making with that uniform and that ‘today we live’ routine.  And then you were off.”
Production on this movie was begun in late 1946.  Just a year after the war, and we’re already negating all that movie patriotism and sacrifice that got us through the worst of it.
Then a phone call lets them know that Ann has been acquitted by the jury.  Mr. Scott quietly says, “Oh.”  So that we are still not sure how the ending will be played.
With Lew Ayres seemingly guiding the shell-shocked couple to a negotiation, it ends with a cigarette on the couch, and the leaden film noir score suddenly lighter, giving us hope, a suggestion of gentleness, and we even hear bells pealing.
We are left with an indictment not of Ann Sheridan, but of the era, and that gave the audience then, and gives the viewer now, something to think about. 
“With all my heart, I still love the man I killed” is just a cheap thrill in comparison. 
And the ending of The Letter where Bette Davis is murdered was not in the original story.  This was tacked on by the stalwart keepers of the Production Code to see that a murderess and adulteress was punished.
Ann Sheridan, in The Unfaithful remarkably gets away with both a killing and adultery, and still holds our sympathy.  She’s rebuked, but still noble.  Way to go, Ann.  It would have been a great scene for the movie if Ann had discussed her affair,  what attracted her to the man and why she needed to be with him.  Perhaps the intimacy of her face and body being so closely studied in creating the sculpture was what seduced her.  But I guess you can push the Hays Office just so far.
You may now rebut.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Happy Canada Day -- and blog tour stop #6

Happy Canada Day to our friends yonder.  Stand up, blog readers, and sing along.  The words are here, so there's no excuse.


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